Brain differences between sexes discovered

sexesResearchers from Northwestern University studied differences in male and female brains regarding learning, memory, stress response and epilepsy.

Of course, there are very apparent differences between males and females, but the new research digs deeper on a neurological level. What is known is that brain disorders affect each gender differently, but how biology and culture contribute to these differences has not been known. Researchers uncovered intrinsic biological differences between male and female brains, believed to be the reason why their brains react differently to drugs which target specific synaptic pathways. The biological difference occurs in the molecular regulation of synapses in the hippocampus.


Senior author of the study, Catherine S. Woolley, said, “The importance of studying sex differences in the brain is about making biology and medicine relevant to everyone, to both men and women. It is not about things such as who is better at reading a map or why more men than women choose to enter certain professions.”

One drug, URB-597, was found to have a different reaction in female brains in comparison to males. The drug is used to regulate an important molecule in neurotransmitter release. The study was conducted on mice, but researchers believe the findings are still viable and important in humans as well.

The drug in women increased the inhibitory effect of a key endocannabinoid in the brain which decreases the release of neurotransmitters. There was no effect seen in males.

Endocannabinoids help regulate neurotransmitters released at synapses. Synapses are a gap between nerve cells which allow electrical signals to pass.

Woolley first studied brain differences in the sexes back in 2012 where she uncovered that estrogen decreased inhibitory synaptic transmission. It was her earlier findings which prompted the latest research. The differences in male and female brains comes down to the interaction between molecules.


Woolley suggests in order to fully understand brain differences, both genders must be studied. Currently the majority (85 percent) of research in the area of the brain are done on male rats. She added, “We are not doing women – and specifically women’s health –   any favors by pretending that things are the same if they are not. If the results of research would be different in female animals, tissues and cells, then we need to know. This is essential so that we can find appropriate diagnoses, treatments and, ultimately, cures for disease in both sexes.”

The findings were published in The Journal of Neuroscience.


Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.